The number of white women in South Carolina prisons is surging, but state officials aren’t sure why.
White female inmates in the past decade have come to outnumber their African-American counterparts – a trend that is not reflected as dramatically among the state’s male inmates.
In 2004, black women made up 53 percent of South Carolina’s female inmates in prison, while white women made up 46 percent. Those numbers have steadily shifted since. Even in 2010, when the state had a prison overcrowding issue, of the 1,597 female inmates, 45 percent were black.
By 2016, the makeup of the female prison population more closely reflects the state’s demographics. As of June 30, black women imprisoned at the Department of Corrections stood at 33 percent, and white women totaled 65 percent. South Carolina’s population, both male and female, is 28 percent black, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
South Carolina officials can’t agree on what precipitated the change over the past decade. Most were dumbfounded when told of the shift. But they welcome the change.
“I think really it’s a huge statement about South Carolina’s coming of age,” said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the head of the Senate’s law-making committee. “I just think it points more to the maturity of the state in how it’s handling criminal justice issues.”
State lawmakers and people in the law enforcement and corrections communities, however, say that, nationally, in the past decade, there has been a rise in the use of methamphetamines and prescription drugs favored by white women. They also say that sentencing reform has been kinder to the lesser felonies, which, like the war on drugs – mostly crack and cocaine – have disproportionally affected African-American women for decades.
South Carolina is not unusual in those changes either, according to a 2013 study by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that aims for fairness and effectiveness in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Still, those trends don’t explain why the change is affecting African-American women who land in prison, but not the numbers for men.
In 2004, 68 percent of men in state prisons were black. That number has dipped to 63 percent in 2016.
Facing a prison overcrowding crisis, South Carolina’s legislators passed a law in 2010 that changed the threshold of which crimes should send criminals to prison and for how long.
Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Darlington Democrat who has served since 2002, said so many crimes were reclassified when the law passed in 2010 that perhaps it had affected many levels of law enforcement, including prison populations.
“I don’t know if there’s a reasonable explanation for the drop” in black women in prison, Malloy said. “There’s a lesser inclination of putting those who are not as violent in the Department of Corrections. We also recognize that the crime rates have gone down.”
For some charges, such as larceny, the threshold of what is considered a felony has increased, said Robert Elam, an assistant solicitor at the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, which prosecutes cases in Lexington, Edgefield, McCormick and Saluda counties.
Legislators had come to terms with the fact that longer prison sentences did not improve public safety or reduce recidivism, Elam said. So legislators reduced the sentencing time of many crimes, a change that is reflected in a drop to the overall state prison population.
Elam also suggested diversion programs such as drug courts as a potential explanation for the female population changes. Drug courts can allow offenders to skip prison and have their crimes sealed from the public eye.
“Maybe more prosecutors and defense attorneys are thinking they should use that diversion,” Elam said. “If you go to drug court successfully, chances are you’re not going back to drugs.”
Martin said the population shift could also be the result of the Legislature’s effort to bring fairness to the criminal justice system. That has involved making changes to state law, such as requiring that law enforcement document the demographics of those they stop.
“There’s been a higher degree of sensitivity to the notion that you enforce the law and you prosecute based on the crime, certainly not based on race,” Martin said. “We didn’t necessarily pass any one thing.”
Martin acknowledged, however, that it’s an ongoing issue the General Assembly must continue to tackle. But he won’t be around to ensure it continues to be a priority. After serving for more than 35 years, he lost a tough, three-way primary in June.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
The S.C. Department of Corrections couldn’t explain the shift in demographics of its female prisoners either.
Agency director Bryan Stirling suggested that perhaps the rise of methamphetamines could have had an impact.
Meth and opioids users tend to be white, while crack and cocaine traditionally have affected black communities.
“We don’t control who is sentenced to the Department of Corrections,” Stirling said. “However, we believe with the introduction of meth, that could be a factor of this population shift.”
Dana Dehart, a University of South Carolina professor who studies incarcerated women and girls, said law enforcement in recent years has been more focused on pursuing enforcement of meth and opioids, and less on crack and cocaine.
“The clearest explanation that I’ve seen thus far is that any change in drug policy that would alleviate incarceration would likely affect black women because they were hardest hit in the first place,” Dehart said.
The Sentencing Project’s study couldn’t nail down one main reason for the shift either.
The data in the report did show that women were affected by the policies of the “war on drugs,” which targeted black neighborhoods.
But the report also noted that while some observers suggested that an increase in arrests for prescription drug offenses could contribute to the changes, that still does not explain why fewer black women are being incarcerated for drug offenses.
The report concluded that it would be useful if states conducted analyses to identify what was leading to the changes in populations.
Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at the organization, said the group had received no feedback on its report. And the organization hasn’t done a report on the shifting demographics of state prisons since.
South Carolina’s legislators and most officials haven’t attempted to document what triggered the changes, because they didn’t know it was happening. Most said they’d have to look into the reasons.
“I do think it points to progress in the ways law enforcement and solicitors around the state are handling cases, and how the system is handling criminal justice issues,” Martin said.
“But I hadn’t heard that there was a drop like that,” he said.
By the numbers
30.7 percent drop in incarceration rates of African-American women from 2000 to 2009
47.1 percent rise in incarceration rates of white women from 2000 to 2009
South Carolina’s female prisoners
2004: 68 percent African-American, 31 percent white
2010: 45 percent African-American, 39 percent white
2016: 33 percent African-American, 65 percent white
South Carolina’s male prisoners
2004: 68 percent African-American, 31 percent white
2010: 66 percent African-American, 31 percent white
2016: 63 percent African-American, 34 percent white
SOURCES: The Sentencing Project, S.C. Department of Corrections